A popular trick among Western video game publishers during the late ’80s and early ’90s in particular was to buy up a popular license — whether for a toy, a film, a TV series, or some other more esoteric media property — and attach it to an existing Japanese game. Given that Japan entered the NES era three years before the U.S. (to say nothing of the rest of the world, whose 8-bit localizations ran a year or two later than America’s), there were hundreds upon hundreds of games to choose from for this sort of overhaul.
In a sense, it was simply the flip side of the practice of scouring existing Japanese licenses from games when converting them to the U.S. market. For example, Fist of the North Star for Sega’s Japanese Mark III became the generic Black Belt for Sega’s American Master System back in 1986, making it one of the earliest examples of the practice. There was also Obake no Q Tarou for Famicom (Chubby Cherub for NES) and even Nintendo’s own U.S. edition of Super Mario Bros. 2, which began life as a vehicle for some short-lived Fuji TV mascots.
Reverse that and you have games suddenly finding life as adventures for characters the software’s creators may never have heard of. Sure, it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Roger Rabbit for Famicom Disk System to become The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle on NES and Game Boy, but it’s a safe bet the creators of Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru had no idea who the Noid was when their game was facelifted to become Yo Noid! But Capcom evidently grabbed the Noid license from Domino’s pizza (god knows why), and rather than create a new platformer for the ill-fated mascot simply gutted one of its own creations. A much cheaper and more economical approach all around; it’s not like the U.S. market could really support yet another cutesy ninja platform action game on NES. But revamp the thing to employ Domino’s semi-popular claymation mascot and bam! A modest success became, if not guaranteed, then at least something within reach.
What does this have to do with Battleship, you might ask? Well, possibly nothing… but then again, maybe everything.
Mindscape’s Battleship didn’t see release in the U.S. for more than three years after its Japanese debut. A debut that, incidentally, made no reference whatsoever to the popular board game Battleship. Under the aegis of minor Japanese publisher Use Corp., Battleship was originally called Kaisen Game: Navy Blue. And while it resembled Battleship in some rather obvious and overt ways, it wasn’t specifically tied to Milton Bradley’s classic tabletop game.
In other words, the origin story for Battleship most likely goes something like this: Use Corp. (and developer Pack-in Video) realized that the Link Cable function of the Game Boy would translate perfectly to the mechanics of Battleship. After all, the tabletop game basically involved a setup identical in spirit to the head-to-head two-system multiplayer mechanics enabled by two linked autonomous consoles. The analog game pitted two players face-to-face, calling blind shots against their opponent’s tactical grid, which was obscured by a top screen that doubled as a target tracker.
And while the resulting game plays identically to Battleship in the broad strokes, by no means does that make it a ripoff. Like a lot of classic board games (including The Monopoly Game), Battleship simply pulled together a popular non-commercial game that had circulated globally for decades, codified the rules, and turned it into a boxed commodity. Navy Blue may have used Battleship as its jumping-off point, but it incorporates elements that existed outside of and before Milton Bradley’s product.
So, yes, players take turns calling shots against the enemy’s grid. And yes, each player commands a fleet of differently sized ships, each of which takes up a varying number of grid spaces depending on its size. Hit every sector of a ship and it sinks; the first player to down all of their opponent’s ships wins.
Where Navy Blue/Battleship differs is in its specifics and versatility. As befits the automated nature of a CPU-controlled setup, this version of Battleship grants players a variety of offensive options that would be difficult to pull off in real life. Each ship type wields a specific array of special capabilities, from the radar grid of the submarine (a one-unit vessel that doesn’t exist in the board game and can be absolutely infuriating to track down once you’ve used up your area attacks) to massive multi-hit tactical warheads that cover a huge swath of ocean. There’s value in knowing how and when to make use of your special attacks — some work better near the beginning of a battle while others play better later on, but that has to be balanced against the fact that a single lucky strike by your opponent could rob you of that ability altogether.
Given the similarities between Navy Blue and classic Battleship, chances are pretty good that Use never intended their game to be licensed. When Mindscape picked up the Battleship license a few years later, though, this oddly Battleship-like game sitting in obscurity over in Japan lent itself nicely to conversion. Pack-in simply needed to make some revisions — adjusting the flow and difficulty of the game, mainly, since there was very little text to localize — in order to make it work to Use’s specs. They (or something — it’s hard to find specific credits) also whipped up Game Gear version to go with the Game Boy release.
Interestingly enough, Pack-in and Use created a sequel to Navy Blue long before the U.S. release of Battleship: Navy Blue ’90. However, Mindscape chose to go with the older game, presumably because the sequel was denser and more complex… meaning it was therefore less faithful to Battleship itself.
Unsurprisingly, Battleship plays best in two-player mode. The CPU has an uncanny ability to hit your ships with its “blind” attacks, a skill matched only by its mysterious tendency not to be where you launch your own strikes. Which isn’t to say you can’t win against the computer, just that the odds are cheerfully stacked against you.
Regardless of the intent or inspiration behind Navy Blue, it made for a convenient ready-made release when Mindscape came a-knockin’ a few years later. Not a bad stroke of luck for Use… or for gamers, who were treated to a pretty respectable adaptation of a board game classic.
Japanese title: Kaisen Game: Navy Blue • 海戦ゲーム NAVY BLUE
Developer: Pack-in Video
Publisher: Use Corporation [JP] Mindscape [US]
Release date: 10.29.1989 [JP] | 12.1992 [US]
Genre: Strategy (board game)
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: None
Next in series: Navy Blue ’90 [12.07.1990]
Similar titles: Game Boy Wars [Intelligent Systems/Hudson/Nintendo | 5.21.1991]